New Marijuana Club Reignites Drug Debate

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The outside of the white stucco building is as nondescript as possible. Located on San Pablo Avenue near the Berkeley-Oakland border, across the street from a local bread company and a tattoo parlor, its windows are covered in butcher's paper. A young man in a hooded sweat shirt perches on a stool by the entrance.

But through the building's open doorway wafts the unmistakable smell of marijuana, which mingles with the scent of freshly baked bread.

The Berkeley Patients Group, which fills prescriptions for cannabis, quietly set up shop here almost at the beginning of the month, with little advertising but a lot of word of mouth and a list of patients that already tops 30 per day.

Inside, patients smoke out of yellow bongs and munch on an array of marijuana-laced chocolate hard candies, cookies and brownies. With prices ranging from approximately $5 for three cookies to $50 for an eighth of an ounce of the drug, the once-illegal plant has become a mainstream commodity, fit for sale alongside auto supplies and bread.

By opening its doors, the non-profit collective of patients and caregivers has joined the ranks of hundreds of such clubs throughout California. The clubs are part of a continuing battle between state laws that allow medical marijuana and federal drug enforcement officials who work to shut such groups down.

Californians overwhelmingly passed Proposition 215 in 1996, clearing the way for doctors to prescribe marijuana to their patients. Supporters say the drug eases pain for people suffering from glaucoma, cancer, AIDS and serious muscular disorders, helping them regain their appetite and live life as best they can.

But the federal government and the initiative's opponents, including the American Medical Association, say marijuana has no proven medical benefits and that the initiative is merely a thinly-veiled attempt to legalize a dangerous narcotic.

While the dispute is ongoing, law enforcement officials have already taken action this year to shut down similar clubs in Hayward and San Jose - closures that have left demand for medical marijuana at an all-time high, says Jim McClelland, general manager of the Berkeley Patients Group.

"The Bay Area is way underserved," he says. "The Oakland club tries to shoulder the entire burden for the East Bay. The demand is about to break their back."

McClelland says the club will do its best to avoid a federal shutdown by making prospective marijuana users undergo a rigorous screening process to determine the legitimacy of their illness.

Doctors must write their patients a letter to be verified by club officials before the patient is allowed in the door, McClelland says.

"We're just filling a prescription," he says.

As an AIDS patient, McClelland says a daily dose of marijuana gives him the pain relief he needs to survive. He adds that his doctors recommended he smoke pot after he was diagnosed with the disease 10 years ago.

He says he sees just such a trend among doctors who, buoyed by the resounding passage of Proposition 215 and a favorable ruing in a patients' rights lawsuit, feel confident that the federal government cannot legally dictate what medicine to prescribe.

Between 10 and 15 new patients arrive daily, McClelland adds.

"More and more people are getting approved by their doctors," he says. "We've seen an influx of applicants. Doctors are less afraid of the federal government. They can see they're being protected, and they're starting to see how (marijuana) helps patients."

The inside of the club speaks to its position as an advocate for medical marijuana. On the back of the papered windows, designs of giant green marijuana leaves proclaim "voter" and "freedom" to those lounging on the couches inside.

McClelland says the government has not fully investigated medical marijuana use.

"The research is few and far between, but it's loosening up a little bit," he says. "More research people can get their hands on the marijuana to test it."

He says the passage of Proposition 215 has revolutionized state narcotics law.

"Proposition 215 turned law enforcement up on its head," he says. "The citizens of California have the right to use this medicine. We all voted for it. We all made it a law. We're making sure people who need medicine can have it."

But Joycelin Barnes, a spokesperson for the San Francisco branch of the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, says marijuana is classified as a hallucinogen and can cause "long-lasting brain damage." The carcinogens in marijuana render it even more dangerous than cigarettes, she says.

Barnes says the federal government is awaiting the outcome of court challenges before moving against the clubs.

"We don't necessarily target cannabis buyers' clubs unless they're engaged in selling it to minors or people without a prescription" she says. "Marijuana is still a controlled substance. It's against the law."

Berkeley City Councilmember Dona Spring says that, although she was unaware of the club's opening, she supports the use of medical marijuana.

"Marijuana should be prescribed like any other drug," she says. "Only because of this country's history is it an illegal, rather than a legal drug."

The overwhelming passage of Proposition 215 indicates that the public supports the efforts of cannabis clubs, Spring says.

She says, however, that the club may want to relocate.

"I'm not sure San Pablo is the best location," Spring says. "That's the area of town that has had problems with drug dealing in the past. Residents may be sensitive on that issue. They need to establish very clear protocol about how the operations would happen out of respect for that neighborhood."

Spring says she hopes that neither the federal government nor the Berkeley police will shut the club down.

"It's a dilemma for the police department," she says. "The police are working to curb the use of illegal drugs in Berkeley, but it's a tightrope for them to walk. They don't know who are legitimate users and who aren't."

State law enforcement officials say they will allow local police to determine how stringently to enforce Proposition 215.

Nathan Barankin, a spokesperson for state Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer, called the measure "poorly drafted" and says it raised more questions than it answered.

"Law enforcement is struggling to define what is allowed and disallowed," he says. "There are efforts to enact legislation to clear up ambiguities for the benefit of doctors. (Lockyer) has said that, without any clarification, he will defer to local law enforcement agencies on how to enforce state law in their jurisdiction."

This is a marked change from former Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren, Lockyer's Republican predecessor, who led the state agency in an effort to close down marijuana clubs statewide.

As for McClelland, he says he hopes the government does not shut down the Berkeley club.

"To the federal government, we're breaking the law," he says. "We hope we're never shut down, but this issue is bigger than us. We don't control all the variables."


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